Compassion for the Collective

Understanding the need of compassionate behaviour for a prosocial community

You are on a zoom call, near the end of a long day spent in front of your laptop screen, and the person on the other end appears to have stopped responding and you lose a few seconds or minutes waiting for them to continue talking. You understand or assume that it is a network problem and don’t blame the person who got disconnected for the time you lost. Here, what behavior you showed is empathy. This understanding could even lead you to offer help to people in your vicinity facing a similar situation, despite costing you your own time and money. The emotional state that makes you motivated to resolve another’s problem is compassion (Perez-Bret et al., 2016).

Now, imagine if you were having the same interaction in person, that is with your colleague sitting in front of you, and he/she stops responding, you might not be able to help but blame them for your lost time. In this case, your first instinct is not to think that they might have got distracted due to a legitimate reason or, say,  a ‘network problem’ inside their brain. A highly empathic individual, on the other hand, could understand this and act accordingly without blaming the person.

Thus, empathy depends on one’s perspective, and may influence one’s actions. Compared to the zoom call, it is harder to ascertain blame in most real life situations, and experiencing empathy and compassion may be useful or detrimental in various scenarios. The urge to relieve others from their suffering can often overcome your own welfare needs. On the other hand, compassion is practically useful and relevant for prosocial behavior (Stevens and Taber, 2021). But what do we mean by prosocial behaviour?

Prosocial and Altruism: Are they the same?

Prosocial or altruistic behaviours, often used interchangeably, refer to ‘any action that benefits another’. Here, welfare could mean fitness (evolutionary) advantage, psychological health and/or resources. Distinguishing the two, however, is important, as mapping the emotions that result in these behaviors without precisely knowing them can be misleading. 

Prosocial and altruistic behaviors may be considered from an intentional perspective (the intention behind the act) or a consequential perspective (the consequence of the act). In general, a prosocial act intends to benefit (intentional) or actually benefits (consequential) the receiver, while altruism may be considered a subtype of prosocial behavior where the act is costly to the self (intentionally or consequentially).

According to a third perspective, the societal perspective, a behavior is considered prosocial only if it is valued by the society and therefore, the focus is more on approval by others. Altruism from this lens reflects on living for others and benefitting the ‘collective’ while abstaining from personal benefits. This view of prosocial behavior may be the most appropriate for society as a whole, and most relevant to understand the evolutionary roots of such behaviour.

Is being prosocial a need or a choice?

The urge to enhance welfare of others at some expense of the self has evolved through natural and sexual selection. Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest has often been misinterpreted to be emphasizing competition. In fact, a few (Ekman, 2010) have proposed that this could also mean ‘survival of the kindest’ since in his book on the descent of man, he writes (Darwin, 1871):

“survival will have been increased through natural selection…Those communities which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best, and rear the greatest number of offspring.”

While altruism is costly, evolution has repeatedly selected for it. In colonies of honeybees for example, worker bees perform all the tasks around the hive while the queen bee mates and lays eggs. If ignoring self-interest was wholly detrimental, such worker behaviour would not have evolved at all. However, this altruistic act of the worker bees is beneficial to the entire collective as it aids in their survival and ensures greater reproductive fitness for the colony. This is similar to soldiers fighting for their countries, often having to sacrifice their own lives for their families, tribes or nations. 

Parent-child relationships in many species, including humans, also exemplify altruism where parents expose themselves to danger while protecting and nourishing the child. Maternal aggression is observed in many species, where mothers attempt to fight off predators that threaten their children, even though they would usually attempt to escape from such predators under normal conditions  (Lucion and Almeida, 1996). In humans, it has been shown that the amygdala region of the brain which is activated in mothers around the birth, remains activated for most of their life ensuring that the mother continues to worry for her child. Thus, humans and other species have evolved emotions related to prosocial and altruistic behavior for benefitting our families and larger communities. Generation of these emotions and their conversion into action is, therefore, critical to our survival.

The societal perspective described above best suits our purpose of weighing the role of emotions, and how that translates to benefits for a collective or community, in the sense that Darwin might have meant it. A society that gives importance to prosocial and altruistic behavior (as defined through a societal perspective) is bound to have greater fitness, and perhaps, harmony.

Empathy translates to prosocial behaviour through compassion

Photo by Dave Lowe on Unsplash

Compassion is a brief state, a distinct emotion different from other similar states such as sympathy, where one can understand others’ feelings, especially if they are suffering unfairly, or in prolonged states of distress, sadness or love. The affective nature of compassion takes it beyond empathy as it additionally includes the motivation to benefit the other.

“Compassion facilitates cooperation and protection of the weak and those who suffer.”

The above statement (Goetz et al., 2010) could make one wonder whether it is even debatable that cooperation/altruism facilitated by compassion is good for society. However, surprisingly empathy can sometimes be detrimental to being prosocial. Why that is so can be understood when we look into two forms of empathy (Jeffrey, 2016).

The first is affective empathy, which is more like experience sharing as the individual can share the emotional state of the other and is similar to emotional contagion which happens unintentionally. Here, the person feeling the emotions cannot distinguish whether the emotions  are because of self or the other. This form of empathy plays a useful role in reinforcing social bonds as it strengthens the mutual affiliation between the individuals. However, it is often accompanied by personal distress resulting in a negative emotional reaction to another’s suffering.

Cognitive empathy, which is the second form of empathy, allows distinguishing between the self and the other and therefore results in perspective taking without personal distress.

Compassion, which can be considered as a secondary step to regulate emotions of the self, depends on one’s ability to respond to another’s troubles while keeping personal distress in check. Both lack of arousal as well as too much arousal of negative emotions on seeing someone suffering can result in inaction towards the one suffering, thus inhibiting altruistic behavior. Therefore, while empathy may or may not be useful for prosocial behavior, compassion as a state will typically result in prosocial behavior.

While an inclination to be prosocial is present in many people, feelings of empathy, which seem to be the precursor for compassionate feelings, show differences between individuals. This has been attributed to certain regions of the brain which are known to be activated while performing a compassionate act (Filkowski et al., 2016). Some individuals can thus reach a compassionate state more easily than others based on the activation patterns of this brain region. If this is the case, then maybe it is important to show compassion even towards people who lack compassion, since it may be out of their control. For example, psychopathy is recognized as the nature of having empathy and therefore understanding what the other is going through, but manipulating that understanding towards one’s own self interest as there is little motivation towards relieving the other of their suffering. While in a compassionate state, one could see things from the point of view of a psychopath without getting affected by his/her misfortune of not being able to generate compassion, and perhaps one could feel the urge to help them develop such a cognitive ability. 

Battling other theories of social relations with compassion

Theories of social relations, which are the basis of community living, are founded on some fundamental types of relations. Aristotle considers the basic pairs of relations like husband-wife, master-slave and father-child from which other relations evolve. In contrast, the extremely influential Hobbesian theory considers rationality and strength/weakness as foundations of all relationships. A compassion-based view of relations seems weak in comparison to Hobbesian ideas that emphasize self-interest, since self-interest is common to all whereas the feeling of compassion varies across individuals. Hence, building a civil and political society based on this approach may result in a more stable order. 

However, even the rational would prefer living in a society where compassion is fundamental to living. This is because in a compassionate society, weakness is viewed as a ‘potential lack of ability’ and not an absolute ‘lack of ability’ as it would be through the Hobbesian lens. The compassion approach of social relations considers the fact that power structures and strengths and weaknesses fluctuate depending on context, and therefore, every individual is vulnerable to any unpredictable misfortune and is therefore as weak as another. An individual who is currently in a position of strength or power and enjoys the benefits of a Hobbesian society may later end up in a position of weakness and suffer its drawbacks. Instead, it may be beneficial if the individuals view others as potential helpers and not as potential oppressors as in the Hobbesian approach. 

The route to compassion is through critical thinking

While in a lot of situations compassion is the first instinct that many have, training minds to think critically is important to inculcate compassion across the board. The rational individuals mentioned above must be the ones who can overcome their thoughts of self-interest and logically reach a place which helps them act prosocially rather than egotistically, without being disabled by overwhelming negative emotions experienced while observing others in distress. The process of acting compassionately includes appraisals of cost/benefit, deservingness of the one who needs help, and relevance of the goal. Each of these appraisals will be performed better by a mind which has been trained to do such analysis through other similarly complex tasks allowing for a habit of thinking rationally and critically. Thus, educating the mass in critical thinking practices can be a potential technique to build a compassionate altruistic society.

So, the next time you assign blame in a social situation, perhaps you should think of whether you really understand the perspective of the concerned parties, whether your emotions are based on that perspective, and whether they lead you to act in a way beneficial to society as a whole. Because just like their brain and circumstances are resulting in their behaviour that you may find annoying, your brain and experiences are dictating how you react to it. And the best way to avoid being a slave to your instinctive emotional responses is to understand the roots of empathy and compassion, and critically think about the situation and your response to it.

By Manishi Srivastava PhD, Research Fellow at ACIT Global


Perez-Bret, E., Altisent, R., & Rocafort, J. (2016). Definition of compassion in healthcare: a systematic literature review. International journal of palliative nursing, 22(12), 599-606.

Stevens, F., & Taber, K. (2021). The neuroscience of empathy and compassion in pro-social behavior. Neuropsychologia, 159, 107925.

Ekman, P. (2010). Survival of the Kindest. Shambala Sun, 61-63.

Darwin, C. (1871). The descent of man. New York: D. Appleton.

Lucion, A. B., & de Almeida, R. M. (1996). On the dual nature of maternal aggression in rats. Aggressive Behavior: Official Journal of the International Society for Research on Aggression, 22(5), 365-373.

Goetz, J. L., Keltner, D., & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010). Compassion: an evolutionary analysis and empirical review. Psychological bulletin, 136(3), 351.

Jeffrey, D. (2016). Empathy, sympathy and compassion in healthcare: Is there a problem? Is there a difference? Does it matter?. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 109(12), 446-452.

Filkowski, M. M., Cochran, R. N., & Haas, B. W. (2016). Altruistic behavior: Mapping responses in the brain. Neuroscience and neuroeconomics, 5, 65.

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